Thursday, August 22, 2013

A parallel analysis via Molly Bang

I'd like to follow up on the user interface analysis via Molly Bang by way of analyzing a static image using Bang's methods. Bang’s method is well suited for interpreting imagery, providing a basis to evaluate shapes and patterns within an image.

For simplicity, let's analyze a webcomic that may be familiar to many of you: “Piled Higher and Deeper” (PHD) is a webcomic about life in academia. The artist and author, Jorge Cham, earned his PhD in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University, and later became a full-time instructor and researcher at the California Institute of Technology from 2003-2005. Cham now works on the comic full-time.

The PHD comic website claims over fourteen million monthly pageviews and over one million unique monthly visitors. Readers to the PHD website represent over eight hundred different fields of study from over one thousand different schools worldwide. Comics get their topics out of the socio-cultural environment from which they originate and for which they are produced. PHD reaches a mostly internal audience of fellow academics and offers a rhetorical view about life in academia. Rhetoric is the set or system of principles regarding the functional application of conventional signs for the purpose of getting someone to think something or want to do something. The comics in PHD do not advocate a specific action, but do evoke an exigence to awaken its readers from complacency, stirring its audience out of a neutral state.

PHD comic #1436 The Evolution of Intellectual Freedom originally published 20 July, 2011, describes research choices at different times in an academic career. Ostensibly organized in a two dimensional chart, the webcomic represents research preferences for undergraduate students, graduate students, assistant professors, tenured professors, and emeriti professors. At each moment, a character expresses their optimism or pessimism towards research options; the undergraduate student and emeritus professor both claim they will “research whatever I want” while the graduate student, assistant professor, and tenured professor assert they will perform the research desired by others, such as the assistant professor’s tenure committee.


“The Evolution of Intellectual Freedom” presents these six moments in time without panels or frames. In comics, panels typically fracture both time and space, and gutters between panels allow the reader to connect these moments to mentally construct a continuous, unified reality. Instead, “The Evolution of Intellectual Freedom” uses the two dimensional chart as an outer frame to infer the passage of time, referencing graphs where a variable (on the vertical axis) is visualized over time (on the horizontal axis). Gutters are implied by the spaces separating the characters. The comic uses these scene-to-scene transitions to transport the reader across time in an academic career.

Now let's go back to Bang for the analysis. Molly Bang's book, Picture This, illustrates ten basic principles present in powerful pictures: Smooth, flat, horizontal shapes give us a sense of stability and calm. Vertical shapes are more exciting and more active; they imply energy. Diagonal shapes are dynamic because they imply motion or tension. The upper half of a picture is a place of freedom, happiness, and triumph, while the bottom half of a picture feels more threatened, heavier, sadder, or constrained; objects placed in the bottom half also feel more grounded. The center of the page is the most effective “center of attention.” It is the point of greatest attraction. White or light backgrounds feel safer than dark backgrounds. Pointed shapes are threatening, while rounded shapes or curves are secure or comforting. Larger object in a picture are perceived as stronger. Audiences associate the same or similar colors much more strongly than the same or similar shapes. Contrasts enable perception of patterns and elements.

Applying Bang’s method does not require all ten basic principles to examine “The Evolution of Intellectual Freedom.” Applying only a few principles permits interpretation of the image:

Diagonal shapes imply motion or tension.
The graduate student, assistant professor, and tenured professor are drawn using diagonal lines. The graduate student stoops over a computer terminal, with both his body and the monitor tilted on a diagonal. The assistant professor is depicted running, using diagonal lines to draw arms and legs. The tenured professor, while seated, suggests tension through an arched body and crossed legs, both on a diagonal. Even the emeritus professor and tombstone are drawn using diagonal lines, implying tension without motion.
The undergraduate includes some diagonal lines in his left arm posture, but otherwise is drawn using only vertical and horizontal lines. This is the only character who is without tension.

The upper half of a picture is a place of freedom, happiness, and triumph, while the bottom half of a picture feels more threatened, heavier, sadder, or constrained.
“The Evolution of Intellectual Freedom” uses the two dimensional chart as an outer frame. All characters are drawn on the bottom of the image, suggesting these figures are sadder or more constrained. The graduate student, assistant professor, and tenured professor reflect this in claiming their research interests are controlled by outside interests.

Audiences associate the same or similar colors much more strongly than the same or similar shapes.
No two characters in the comic share the same or similar colors. However, the emeritus professor and tombstone are both colored grey, suggesting the grave belongs to the emeritus professor. The relationship is further implied by the interruption in the emeritus professor’s statement, which connotes that the emeritus professor expired before he was able to conduct research according to his own agenda.
While audiences associate the same or similar shapes less strongly than the same or similar colors, shape does imply relationships between objects. The undergraduate and the emeritus professor are both drawn in the same pose: right arm extended and pointing upwards with a single extended digit, elongated round mouth, arched eyebrows, and pointed nose. This evidence suggests the two characters are the same person, young and old, before and after his professional career.

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